REVIEW – Total Recall (1990)

FilmJuice have my review of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. The review is of the freshly released and genuinely fantastic Blu-ray release of the film and it ties in quite nicely with this recent piece I also wrote for FilmJuice about the films of Paul Verhoeven.

The first thing that struck me about this film was how violent and sexually explicit it is by the standards of contemporary big budget filmmaking. Indeed, the likes of Michael Bay will frequently include women draped decoratively across motorbikes or ascending stairs but the actual sexual content of their films is practically non-existent. The reason for this is two-fold: A) These big budget films have absolutely immense budgets and in order to maximise their profitability, they need to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Hence the death of the ’18’ rated action film that dominated much of my childhood. B) The target demographic for most contemporary action films is teenaged boys whose sexual experience is usually limited to ogling and giggling… so whenever Bay has an actress bend over but not actually have sex with anyone, he is attempting to position his film in the sexual universe of horny teenaged boys. Compared to contemporary action films, Total Recall comes across as not only quite explicit but also quite surprisingly adult… particularly strange is the weird sexual energy that fizzes between the characters of Schwarzenegger and Stone as they beat each other up and pretend to be married:

One particularly wonderful element of the film is the relationship between Schwarzenegger’s violently bulging everyman and Sharon Stone’s pouting secret agent. Indeed, Stone plays the roll of a woman who is either a loving wife to Schwarzenegger or deep-cover operative assigned to keep him under surveillance lest his secret identity as a Martian freedom fighter begin to reassert itself. Rather than pitting these two personae against each other and musing as to which is the ‘real’ one, Verhoeven simply runs them together meaning that Stone’s character comes across as a lovingly traitorous wife who wants to kill her husband and have sex with him, quite possibly at the same time. Victims of actual domestic abuse might squirm as Schwarzenegger and Stone flit between flirting and kicking each other across the room but Verhoeven fully embraces the tension and presents it almost as a form of sadomasochistic play. Tellingly, when Schwarzenegger decides that he can no longer trust his wife, Stone’s character makes one last attempt to win him over by offering to let him tie her up. Verhoeven’s bizarre sexualisation of domestic abuse is both intensely unsettling and utterly compelling.

Total Recall is an excellent film and this Blu-ray edition does it proud.  Definitely worth revisiting and re-appraising.


  1. Thanks for the good news on the Total Recall Blu-Ray, John. The original release was one of the first Blu-Ray releases I got waaaay back in 2006, and to say the transfer was disappointing is putting it politely. The best thing about this upcoming remake is that they’ve been able to fix this injustice.


  2. I think this is a re-release of the HD-DVD release that is now (for obvious reasons) surplus to requirement. Apparently this was overseen by Verhoeven itself and it really does look amazing… there are films being made today that don’t look as good as this Blu-ray.


  3. As much as I enjoyed the film the first time I saw it (probably for the same reasons you like it), the second viewing left me profoundly unsatisfied. There’s no question that the only coherent reading of the film is that everything that happens once Ahnold’s character sits in the chair to receive his Rekall adventure *is* the adventure (the Rekall tech is aware of the end of the adventure — an atmosphere on Mars — which is scientifically nonsensical). So it’s essentially an sf movie about a guy who goes to the movies (which is to say, purchases a popular form of contemporary entertainment). And that’s all that happens; nothing at all is actually at stake. If they had acknowledged that and gone past the ending and made his experience at Rekall important, and explained why he’d been having dreams of Mars to begin with, in a way that subverted the entire action epic that constituted the bulk of the pic — that would have been brilliant. Of course, that’s pretty much what the original Dick story does.


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